St. Catherine of Siena:
Doctor of the Church
Feastday: April 29
Patron Fire prevention
1347 - 1380
The 25th child of a wool dyer in northern Italy, St. Catherine started having mystical experiences when she was only 6, seeing guardian angels as clearly as the people they protected. She became a Dominican tertiary when she was 16, and continued to have visions of Christ, Mary, and the saints. St. Catherine was one of the most brilliant theological minds of her day, although she never had any formal education.
She persuaded the Pope to go back to Rome from Avignon, in 1377, and when she died she was endeavoring to heal the Great Western Schism. In 1375 Our Lord give her the Stigmata, which was visible only after her death. Her spiritual director was Blessed Raymond of Capua. St, Catherine's letters, and a treatise called "a dialogue" are considered among the most brilliant writings in the history of the Catholic Church. She died when she was only 33, and her body was found in-corrupt in 1430.
Doctor of the Church:
Dominican Tertiary, born at Siena, 25 March, 1347; died at Rome, 29 April, 1380.
She was the youngest but one of a very large family. Her father, Giacomo di Benincasa, was a dyer; her mother, Lapa, the daughter of a local poet. They belonged to the lower middle-class faction of tradesmen and petty notaries, known as "the Party of the Twelve", which between one revolution and another ruled the Republic of Siena from 1355 to 1368. From her earliest childhood Catherine began to see visions and to practise extreme austerities. At the age of seven she consecrated her virginity to Christ; in her sixteenth year she took the habit of the Dominican Tertiaries, and renewed the life of the anchorites of the desert in a little room in her father's house.
After three years of celestial visitations and familiar conversation with Christ, she underwent the mystical experience known as the "spiritual espousals", probably during the carnival of 1366. She now rejoined her family, began to tend the sick, especially those afflicted with the most repulsive diseases, to serve the poor, and to labour for the conversion of sinners. Though always suffering terrible physical pain, living for long intervals on practically no food save the Blessed Sacrament, she was ever radiantly happy and full of practical wisdom no less than the highest spiritual insight.
All her contemporaries bear witness to her extraordinary personal charm, which prevailed over the continual persecution to which she was subjected even by the friars of her own order and by her sisters in religion. She began to gather disciples round her, both men and women, who formed a wonderful spiritual fellowship, united to her by the bonds of mystical love. During the summer of 1370 she received a series of special manifestations of Divine mysteries, which culminated in a prolonged trance, a kind of mystical death, in which she had a vision of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, and heard a Divine command to leave her cell and enter the public life of the world. She began to dispatch letters to men and women in every condition of life, entered into correspondence with the princes and republics of Italy, was consulted by the papal legates about the affairs of the Church, and set herself to heal the wounds of her native land by staying the fury of civil war and the ravages of faction.
She implored the pope, Gregory XI, to leave Avignon, to reform the clergy and the administration of the Papal States, and ardently threw herself into his design for a crusade, in the hopes of uniting the powers of Christendom against the infidels, and restoring peace to Italy by delivering her from the wandering companies of mercenary soldiers. While at Pisa, on the fourth Sunday of Lent, 1375, she received the Stigmata, although, at her special prayer, the marks did not appear outwardly in her body while she lived.
Mainly through the misgovernment of the papal officials, war broke out between Florence and the Holy See, and almost the whole of the Papal States rose in insurrection. Catherine had already been sent on a mission from the pope to secure the neutrality of Pisa and Lucca. In June, 1376, she went to Avignon as ambassador of the Florentines, to make their peace; but, either through the bad faith of the republic or through a misunderstanding caused by the frequent changes in its government, she was unsuccessful. Nevertheless she made such a profound impression upon the mind of the pope, that, in spite of the opposition of the French king and almost the whole of the Sacred College, he returned to Rome (17 January, 1377).
Catherine spent the greater part of 1377 in effecting a wonderful spiritual revival in the country districts subject to the Republic of Siena, and it was at this time that she miraculously learned to write, though she still seems to have chiefly relied upon her secretaries for her correspondence. Early in 1378 she was sent by Pope Gregory to Florence, to make a fresh effort for peace. Unfortunately, through the factious conduct of her Florentine associates, she became involved in the internal politics of the city, and during a popular tumult (22 June) an attempt was made upon her life.
She was bitterly disappointed at her escape, declaring that her sins had deprived her of the red rose of martyrdom. Nevertheless, during the disastrous revolution known as "the tumult of the Ciompi", she still remained at Florence or in its territory until, at the beginning of August, news reached the city that peace had been signed between the republic and the new pope. Catherine then instantly returned to Siena, where she passed a few months of comparative quiet, dictating her "Dialogue", the book of her meditations and revelations.
In the meanwhile the Great Schism had broken out in the Church. From the outset Catherine enthusiastically adhered to the Roman claimant, Urban VI, who in November, 1378, summoned her to Rome. In the Eternal City she spent what remained of her life, working strenuously for the reformation of the Church, serving the destitute and afflicted, and dispatching eloquent letters in behalf of Urban to high and low in all directions.
Her strength was rapidly being consumed; she besought her Divine Bridegroom to let her bear the punishment for all the sins of the world, and to receive the sacrifice of her body for the unity and renovation of the Church; at last it seemed to her that the Bark of Peter was laid upon her shoulders, and that it was crushing her to death with its weight.
After a prolonged and mysterious agony of three months, endured by her with supreme exultation and delight, from Sexagesima Sunday until the Sunday before the Ascension, she died. Her last political work, accomplished practically from her death-bed, was the reconciliation of Pope Urban VI with the Roman Republic (1380).
Among Catherine's principal followers were Fra Raimondo delle Vigne, of Capua (d. 1399), her confessor and biographer, afterwards General of the Dominicans, and Stefano di Corrado Maconi (d. 1424), who had been one of her secretaries, and became Prior General of the Carthusians. Raimondo's book, the "Legend", was finished in 1395.
A second life of her, the "Supplement", was written a few years later by another of her associates, Fra Tomaso Caffarini (d. 1434), who also composed the "Minor Legend", which was translated into Italian by Stefano Maconi. Between 1411 and 1413 the depositions of the surviving witnesses of her life and work were collected at Venice, to form the famous "Process".
Catherine was canonized by Pius II in 1461.
The emblems by which she is known in Christian art are the lily and book, the crown of thorns, or sometimes a heart--referring to the legend of her having changed hearts with Christ. Her principal feast is on the 30th of April, but it is popularly celebrated in Siena on the Sunday following. The feast of her Espousals is kept on the Thursday of the carnival.
The works of St. Catherine of Siena rank among the classics of the Italian language, written in the beautiful Tuscan vernacular of the fourteenth century. Notwithstanding the existence of many excellent manuscripts, the printed editions present the text in a frequently mutilated and most unsatisfactory condition. Her writings consist of
* the "Dialogue", or "Treatise on Divine Providence";
* a collection of nearly four hundred letters; and
* a series of "Prayers".
The "Dialogue" especially, which treats of the whole spiritual life of man in the form of a series of colloquies between the Eternal Father and the human soul (represented by Catherine herself), is the mystical counterpart in prose of Dante's "Divina Commedia".
Raymund de Capua, was appointed her confessor. In this happy association, Father Raymund was in many things of the spirit her disciple. Later he became the saint's biographer.
After Catherine's return to Siena there was a terrible outbreak of the plague, during which she and her circle worked incessantly to relieve the sufferers. "Never did she appear more admirable than at this time," wrote a priest who had known her from girlhood. "She was always with the plague-stricken; she prepared them for death and buried them with her own hands. I myself witnessed the joy with which she nursed them and the wonderful efficacy of her words, which brought about many conversions."
Among those who owed their recovery directly to her were Raymund of Capua himself, Matthew Cenni, Father Santi, and Father Bartholomew, all of whom contracted the disease through tending others. Her pity for dying men was not confined to those who were sick. She made it a practice to visit condemned persons in prison, hoping to persuade them to make their peace with God. On one occasion she walked to the scaffold with a young Perugian knight, sentenced to death for using seditious language against the government of Siena. His last words were: "Jesus and Catherine! "
Her deeds of mercy, coupled with a growing reputation as a worker of miracles, now caused the Sienese to turn to Catherine in all kinds of difficulties. Three Dominican priests were especially deputed to hear the confessions of those whom she had prevailed on to amend their lives. In settling disputes and healing old feuds she was so successful that she was constantly called upon to arbitrate at a time when all through Italy every man's hand seemed to be against his neighbor.
It was partly, perhaps, with a view to turning the energies of Christendom away from civil wars that Catherine threw herself into Pope Gregory's campaign for another crusade to wrest the Holy Sepulchre from the Turks. This brought her into correspondence with Gregory himself.
In February, 1375, she accepted an invitation to visit Pisa, where she was welcomed with enthusiasm. She had been there only a few days when she had another of the spiritual experiences which seem to have presaged each new step in her career. She had made her Communion in the little church of St. Christina, and had been gazing at the crucifix, when suddenly there descended from it five blood-red rays which pierced her hands, feet and heart, causing such acute pain that she swooned. The wounds remained as stigmata, visible to herself alone during her life, but clearly to be seen after her death.
She was still in Pisa when she received word that the people of Florence and Perugia had entered into a league against the Holy See and the French legates. The disturbance had begun in Florence, where the Guelphs and the Ghibellines united to raise a large army under the banner of freedom from the Pope's control, and Bologna, Viterbo, and Ancona, together with other strongholds in the papal domain, rallied to the insurgents. Through Catherine's untiring efforts, the cities of Lucca, Pisa, and Siena held back.
From Avignon, meanwhile, after an unsuccessful appeal to the Florentines, the Pope, Gregory XI, sent Cardinal Robert of Geneva with an army to put down the uprising, and laid Florence under an interdict. The effects of the ban on the life and prosperity of the city were so serious that its rulers sent to Siena, to ask Catherine to mediate with the Pope. Always ready to act as a peacemaker, she promptly set out for Florence. The city's magistrates met her as she drew near the gates, and placed the negotiations entirely in her hands, saying that their ambassadors would follow her to Avignon and confirm whatever she did there. Catherine arrived in Avignon on June 18, 1376, and was graciously received by the Pope.
"I desire nothing but peace," he said; "I place the affair entirely in your hands, only I recommend to you the honor of the Church." As it happened, the Florentines proved untrustworthy and continued their intrigues to draw the rest of Italy away from allegiance to the Holy See. When their ambassadors arrived, they disclaimed all connection with Catherine, making it clear by their demands that they did not desire a reconciliation.
Although she had failed in this matter, her efforts in another direction were successful. Many of the troubles which then afflicted Europe were, to some degree at least, due to the seventy-four-year residence of the popes at Avignon, where the Curia was now largely French. Gregory had been ready to go back to Rome with his court, but the opposition of the French cardinals had deterred him.
Since in her letters Catherine had urged his return so strongly, it was natural that they should discuss the subject now that they were face to face. "Fulfill what you have promised," she said, reminding him of a vow he had once taken and had never disclosed to any human being. Greatly impressed by what he regarded as a supernatural sign, Gregory resolved to act upon it at once.
On September 13, 1376, he set out from Avignon to travel by water to Rome, while Catherine and her friends left the city on the same day to return overland to Siena. On reaching Genoa she was detained by the illness of two of her secretaries, Neri di Landoccio and Stephen Maconi. The latter was a young Sienese nobleman, recently converted, who had become an ardent follower. When Catherine got back to Siena, she kept on writing the Pope, entreating him to labor for peace. At his request she went again to Florence, still rent by factions, and stayed there for some time, frequently in danger of her life.
She did finally establish peace between the city governors and the papacy, but this was in the reign of Gregory's successor.
After Catherine returned to Siena, Raymund of Capua tells us, "she occupied herself actively in the composition of a book which she dictated under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost." This was the mystical work, in four treatises, called
She was grieved by any sort of scandal in the Church, especially that of the Great Schism which followed the death of Gregory XI. Urban VI was elected as his successor by the cardinals of Rome and Clement VII by the rebellious cardinals of Avignon. Western Christendom was divided; Clement was recognized by France, Spain, Scotland, and Naples; Urban by most of North Italy, England, Flanders, and Hungary.
Catherine wore herself out trying to heal this terrible breach in Christian unity and to obtain for Urban the obedience due to the legitimate head. Letter after letter was dispatched to the princes and leaders of Europe. To Urban himself she wrote to warn him to control his harsh and arrogant temper. This was the second pope she had counseled, chided, even commanded. Far from resenting reproof, Urban summoned her to Rome that he might profit by her advice. Reluctantly she left Siena to live in the Holy City. She had achieved a remarkable position for a woman of her time. On various occasions at Siena, Avignon, and Genoa, learned theologians had questioned her and had been humbled by the wisdom of her replies.
Although Catherine was only thirty-three, her life was now nearing its close. On April 21, 1380, a paralytic stroke made her helpless from the waist downwards, and eight days later she passed away in the arms of her cherished friend, Alessia Saracini. The Dominicans at Rome still treasure the body of Catherine in the Minerva Church, but Siena has her head enshrined in St. Dominic's Church.
Pope Pius II canonized Catherine in 1461.
The saint's talents as a writer caused her to be compared with her countrymen, Dante and Petrarch. Among her literary remains are the
The doctor of the Church who most clearly articulates this vocation to spiritual motherhood is the 14th century Dominican tertiary Saint Catherine of Siena, who is perhaps best known for the prayers, sacrifices, and counsel she offered Pope Gregory XI in his decision to return the papacy from Avignon to Rome. In looking to her as a model of spiritual motherhood for priests, we discover that Catherine teaches not only by the example of her prayers and sacrifices, but also by the counsel she offers in her letters: "See that in everything you turn to Mary as you embrace the cross,"
"Make your home in the pulpit of the cross," and "Finish your life on the cross," encouraging her spiritual sons to identify themselves ever more closely with Christ the High Priest. Catherine's spiritual motherhood, as seen in these letters, offers us a rich source of inspiration as we enter into this "Year for Priests."
Catherine's letters to priests often include words of encouragement in times of difficulty, as she writes to Blessed Raymond of Capua, referring to herself in the third person: "I've heard from a servant of God who constantly holds you before God in prayer, that you have been experiencing tremendous struggles and that your spirit has been overtaken by darkness because of the devil's illusions and deceits." With this image of holding a soul before God in prayer, as a mother holding her child out so that its Father might take it up into his arms, Catherine reveals the maternal quality of her prayer.
With a mother's intuition illumined by the Holy Spirit, she perceives the spiritual darkness he has fallen into and explains the enemy's tactics: "He wants to make you see the crooked as straight and the straight as crooked, and he does this to make you stumble along the way so you won't reach your goal." In the face of such diabolical attempts to impede his priestly ministry, Catherine assures Raymond, "But take heart. God has provided and will continue to provide for you, and his providence will not fail you."
A priest's confidence is to be placed, not in himself, where it is sure to fail, but in God's providential care for him, especially in the form of his mother. As Our Lady's maternal love for her son embraced him from the moment of his Incarnation to his death on the cross, so, too, does her maternal love embrace his priests in her constant intercession for them. Thus, they can entrust their priestly hearts wholly to hers, especially in times of discouragement, as Catherine advises, "See that in everything you turn to Mary as you embrace the cross."
But it is not enough to embrace the cross-it must be mounted, as Catherine explains in her letter to Frate Bartolomeo Dominici: "After the fire of the Holy Spirit had descended on [the disciples], they mounted the pulpit of the blazing cross, where they felt and tasted the hunger of God's Son, his love for humankind." With this striking image, Catherine expresses the complete identification of Christ and his priests on the cross, blazing with the fire of divine charity, where they feel what he felt and taste what he tasted in his all-consuming love for us. Only from such a pulpit of divine charity do the words of priests wield supernatural power: "Then their words came forth as does a red-hot knife from a furnace, and with its heat they pierced their listeners to the heart and cast out the devils."
Indeed, many of Catherine's own listeners were pierced to the heart, not only by her words, but also by those of the priests to whom she sent them in the pulpit of the confessional. Whether he is casting out devils in the confessional or at the altar, the pulpit of the cross is where the priest of Christ belongs, as Catherine implores, "So, my dearest son, I beg you-it is my will in Christ Jesus-make your home in the pulpit of the cross."
From this pulpit, a priest of Jesus Christ engages in a battle for souls, beginning with his own, which is why in her letter to Frate Ranieri Catherine urges, "I long to see you a real knight, fighting against every vice and temptation for Christ crucified with a true holy perseverance." With such chivalric imagery, she appeals to his masculine instincts for battle and adventure, as she continues, "For it is perseverance that is crowned. You know that victory is achieved by fighting and perseverance. In this life we are set as on a battlefield and we must fight courageously, not dodging the blows or retreating, but keeping our eyes on our captain, Christ crucified, who always persevered." Just as no soldier goes into battle at his own initiative, but solely at that of his captain, so too must a priest take his commands from Christ, who:
". . . didn't give up when the Jews said, 'Come down from the cross!' Nor did the devil or our ingratitude make him give up fulfilling the Father's command and our salvation. No, he persevered right up to the end, when he returned to the eternal Father with the victory he had achieved, the victory of having rescued humankind from darkness and given us the light of grace once again by conquering the devil and the world with all its pleasures. And it killed him: this Lamb took death for himself in order to give us life; by his dying he destroyed our death."
Finally, as no soldier dies for an abstraction he holds, but for a beauty he loves, so too must Christ's priests live and die for love of the beauty of his bride, the Church. Hence, Catherine concludes her letter to this priest simply with, "Finish your life on the cross."
In these letters to Blessed Raymond of Capua and other priests, the voice of Saint Catherine of Siena as a spiritual mother is unmistakable. The authority with which she speaks is that of one whose spousal love for Christ united her so closely to him that his desire for the salvation of souls and the holiness of his priests has become her very own.
As Catherine joins "that gentle mother Mary" in interceding for Christ's priests, she invites us to do the same. In light of the Congregation for the Clergy's document calling for spiritual mothers for priests and Pope Benedict XVI's dedication of the current year as a "Year for Priests," a rediscovery of this spiritual mother's letters to priests could not be more timely.
St. Catherine of Siena tribute site
St. Catherine's letters in Italian
Centro Internazionale di Studi Cateriniani
The physical head of St. Catherine
Biography of St. Catherine of Siena
Prayers to St. Catherine of Siena
Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico Siena
Basilica di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
Associazione Internazionale di Caterinati
St. Catherine quotes
City of Siena pictures
Understanding and appreciating St. Catherine
St. Catherine of Siena Wiki entry
Orbis Catholicus, pictures 4-7 above, from Rome
St. Catherine of Siena Parish-Miami
St. Catherine of Siena Parish fire (2008)
Letters of Catherine Benincasa by Saint Catherine
Libro della divina dottrina by Saint Catherine
Sigrid Undset’s Catherine of Siena is critically acclaimed as one of the best biographies of this well known, and amazing fourteenth-century saint. Known for her historical fiction, which won her the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928
Continuing his popular series of novels about saints of the Church, de Wohl devotes his considerable talents to an interpretation of one of the most unusual women of all time, Saint Catherine of Siena